Features

Opera's Next Wave

Composer NICO MUHLY

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Nico Muhly
© Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images 2012

There's a lot of discussion today about how long opera can survive in a technology-obsessed society that seems to demand ever shorter, faster forms of stimulation. With people glued to their new smartphones, unable to sit through even a half-hour sitcom without texting friends, is it reasonable to expect that ten years from now they'll be held by epic-length operas? Nico Muhly isn't having any of that argument. One of the most talked-about composers of the moment (Two Boys, Dark Sisters), Muhly finds opera a terrific antidote to the fast-forward times we're living in. "I think after a day of dealing with horseshit phone calls, what you actually want to do is sit through Siegfried," he says. "And all that 'disengagement factor' is a form of engagement, really. Just last night, I was walking the dog and texting my friend in Belgium and figuring out dinner reservations for next Wednesday and reading about Rick Santorum — and I didn't in any way feel disengaged from the fact that I ran into three friends on the street. I think the important factor about attention span as far as opera goes is length. I think two hours is the right length for an opera. But sometimes you see Mozart, and it's three hours, and you think it's just perfect. At other times you see an opera that's three hours long and you want to kill yourself. It's a constant process for me of figuring out how to deploy these forces in time. Think about Hitchcock's North by Northwest, which is simultaneously totally keyed to the plot yet will also linger and indulge in a shot — these intense kind of compositional gestures. With opera, it's exactly that, and you have to figure out how to do it right." Muhly's specific brand of post-minimalism is anything but repetitive. His music constantly spins out in different directions, surprising us time after time with its inventive, often funny, orchestral detail and choral passages. It's music that's in constant motion — cool and warm at the same time.

"I think also that stuff has to happen in your operas. If it's not the plots, it better be the sets. In Mozart operas, something's always happening. It's more complicated in Italian opera, sometimes too much. I would posit that too much happens in Simon Boccanegra. Last summer, when I was in London doing Two Boys, I saw Boccanegra three times, and I could not tell you what happens. And it was in English!"

Muhly draws the line at envisioning what his career in opera will look like a decade from now. "Dealing with opera is such a glacial driving of a very large boat," he says. "It takes a long time to turn things around and start and stop." spacer 

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4